Kleinsasser stays true to his roots
MANKATO, Minn. -- In 1999, the Minnesota Vikings took one of the top tight end prospects in the second round of the NFL Draft.
Since then, the 6-foot-3, 274-pounder has started 119 games for the purple and gold -- second most of any tight end in franchise history -- has hauled in the fourth-most catches of any Viking tight end, and his career is still going.
Jim Kleinsasser, the longest-tenured Viking on the team's roster, is entering his 13th year in the NFL -- all in Minnesota -- and has been one of the most physical tight ends in the team's recent history. He has helped pave the way for seven of the top eight single-season rushing records for Minnesota, including Adrian Peterson's record-setting mark of 1,760 yards in 2008.
But before he was blocking for one of the best rushers in the NFL, he was sporting No. 81 as a member of the Carrington Cardinals football team, led by coach Marty Hochhalter.
Despite it being almost 17 years since he last played for the Cardinals, his high school days are still a part of his life today.
"I try to keep in touch with my old coach, Marty Hochhalter, as much as I can," said Kleinsasser, who made 17 grabs for 148 yards last season with Minnesota. "He was pretty much one of the biggest influences in my football life.
"I'm really great friends with him now and I try to catch up with him whenever I can."
Hochhalter, who is entering his 18th year coaching, knew he had something special with Kleinsasser.
"He was outstanding," Hochhalter said of his former player. "He controlled the game on both sides of the ball and he was a great team player.
"Just being around him, you knew that he had the potential to be something special."
And special he was.
Kleinsasser ended his high school career as a two-time all-state and all-region selection, and was twice named the Gatorade North Dakota Player of the Year.
"I always had a great group of guys around me, whether it be coaches or teammates, and that was the big thing" said Kleinsasser, who was inducted into the North Dakota Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
The 1995 Carrington High School graduate also excelled in track and field and basketball, including helping lead the Cardinals to a Class B boys basketball state championship in 1995.
Kleinsasser added that he still follows some of the teams throughout the school year. In fact, the former Cardinal addressed the 2010 Carrington boys' basketball team via Skype prior to their run to the state championship.
"We keep close tabs (on the teams)," Kleinsasser said. "My parents still live in the area, so I try to keep pretty sharp with that."
Kleinsasser followed his sister, Sheri, to the University of North Dakota, where he ended his four-year career with the Sioux as one of most decorated tight ends in the school's history. And before long, he was suiting up for his favorite childhood team -- the Minnesota Vikings.
Kleinsasser is among four Viking tight ends that are expected to see playing time this year.
"It's unbelievable to sit and the Metrodome and hear a player announced that you once coached," Hochhalter said. "It's very special."
Griswold is a sports reporter for The Jamestown Sun, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.